Relaxed officiating defined Game 4 of the NBA Finals

ATLANTA, GA - JUNE 18: NBA referee James Williams #60 and referee Pat Fraher #26 talk to referee Scott Foster #48 during Round 2, Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Playoffs on June 18, 2021 at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Georgia. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2021 NBAE (Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images)

Everyone loves to criticize officials. All season long, players, fans, and coaches have complained about overzealous referees. They did admittedly call many fouls, but the league office is more to blame for that. However, in these playoffs, the referees have generally allowed a higher level of physicality. Game 4 of the NBA Finals was the pinnacle of this looser officiating, and the results were mixed. While the Bucks eventually pulled away, the game was a thriller throughout. Both sides took advantage of some beneficial calls, but ultimately, the Bucks had to overcome a pair of bad no-calls that almost cost them the game.

Devin Booker’s lucky day

Devin Booker played his worst game of the playoffs in Game 3 of these finals. However, he bounced back in a big way in Game 4. He finished with an efficient 42 points, including 18 on perfect shooting in the third quarter. However, he struggled with foul trouble the entire game. He picked up his fifth foul early in the fourth quarter. Head coach Monty Williams sent his star to the bench to save him for the end of the game. When he re-entered the game, the Suns were still winning by three. A few possessions later, Booker clearly wrapped up Jrue Holiday on the fastbreak. Commentator Mike Breen, generally one of the most generous towards referees, just assumed it was a foul. He was taken aback by the no-call and blatantly said the referees missed one.

With the rest of the Suns struggling, Booker’s sixth foul would have been a crushing blow for Phoenix. However, the referees missed it, and he stayed in the game. Booker later had another near foul, this one less obvious, that could have ended his night. However, the referees let him off once again, and he continued to make big shots down the stretch. Fortunately for the referees and the NBA, Milwaukee pulled it out in the end. If they hadn’t, the officiating would have defined not just Game 4 but possibly the whole Finals.

Physical defense

Looser officiating allows players to get more physical. For every old-school basketball purist, that’s what the playoffs are all about. Both Phoenix and Milwaukee are great defensive teams. When they realized that the officials were swallowing their whistles, they took advantage. The primary beneficiary was Jrue Holiday. While Holiday had a terrible offensive night (4-20 from the field), he made up for it with his defense. He hounded Chris Paul, and Phoenix’s offense struggled without its Point God. Paul, generally unflappable on offense, committed five turnovers and shot just 5-13.

However, Holiday wasn’t the only one getting a little more physical. After Giannis Antetokounmpo torched the Suns for back-to-back 40-point games, Deandre Ayton upped his physicality. So did the entire Phoenix defense. They swarmed on the catch and made it difficult for Giannis to move without hitting bodies.

The physical play was refreshing for viewers. Players had to get past the good solid defense to score. They had to make crisp moves to get open and make difficult shots. It was high-level NBA basketball, just like the Finals should be. Similar to Team USA in international competition, it seemed to take the players a while to adjust. After a few no-calls, players looked up at the referees in disbelief. But ultimately, it led to higher quality basketball. While the pendulum might have swung too far towards lax officiating at times, it was good to see Game 4 of the Finals decided by the players, not the referees. The Booker no-calls will overshadow the rest of the officiating, but the league office should note how the game became faster with fewer foul calls while the quality improved.

Some ticky-tack calls remained

Almost as if to show the contrast, there were still some very soft calls. Jae Crowder drew two weak fouls that could have been really important late in the game. The first came late in the shot clock when Phoenix had nothing going. Chris Paul was dribbling 30 feet from the basket. Crowder went to set a screen, and Pat Connaughton put his hand on Crowder’s waist. Crowder stumbled the entire length of the court. The referees called a foul, and the Suns got a fresh shot clock to work with. And then, with 6:27 left to play, Crowder fell after PJ Tucker grazed his hand on a three-point attempt. He got the call, which was a massive swing. He made all three free throws to put the Suns up five. And of equal importance, it was Tucker’s fifth foul, so he had to leave the game.

These calls were annoying to see, especially in a game that was so well-officiated. However, neither was surprising given the current NBA rules (there was gray area on the Tucker foul). Ultimately, the officiating was a defining storyline from Game 4 of these NBA Finals. While referees never want to be the story, this wasn’t all bad. The media will talk about missing the calls on Devin Booker. Some will say that it was star treatment or just terrible officiating. But it was just one bad call. And the referees deserve credit for the rest of the game. They were partly responsible for delivering one of the best and most physical Finals games in recent memory.

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